A handful of GOP presidential candidates debating Tuesday at The Venetian Las Vegas
clearly missed the memo from their host about supporting his quest to ban Internet gaming.
Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson is pushing legislation in Congress to restore the Interstate Federal Wire Act to its pre-2011 interpretation. Adelson is also bankrolling a grass-roots effort favoring the measure as well as financing campaigns across the country to kill online gambling legalization proposals in several states.
But even the staunchest gambling critics are not 100% in step.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told the Las Vegas Review-Journal
editorial board Monday he wanted to understand both sides of the federal effort that is backed by two of his GOP rivals.
"I'm not giving you a definitive answer because I haven't seen pros and cons of both sides," Bush said. "I'm giving you the basis from which I would make a decision because there would be a conflict. I believe in states' rights and that there should be greater deference to the states. And I'm not a big fan of gambling so, mark me down as neutral until I can get a full briefing."
A few hours after Bush made his comments, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz sat in the same seat and said he "hasn't taken a position one way or the other" on the bill that would effectively shut down legal Internet gaming in three states, including Nevada. However, Cruz said states "have the determination as to what level of casino gaming to allow."
He also disagrees with the president or attorney general changing a law, which is what Adelson and Internet gambling opponents believe happened when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a new opinion on the Wire Act in December 2011. The 1961 law deals with the transmission of wagers, but the Justice Department ruled it applies only to sports betting and not poker and casino-style games.
"In my view, the president and attorney general are obligated to faithfully enforce the law," Cruz said.
Does it sound like the presidential candidates are trying to have it both ways? They don't want to lose support from pro-gambling voters but also not anger Adelson, a prolific GOP campaign contributor.
The Washington, D.C.-based American Gaming Association Monday released of a survey that showed nearly 40% of Nevada's casino employees will withhold their vote from a candidate who expresses negative opinions about gaming.
The poll, conducted for the trade group by Las Vegas-based Consumer Opinion Services, found that casino employees are focused on the campaigns. Almost three-quarters of the gaming workers are closely watching what candidates are saying while 93% say they are likely to cast a ballot in the general election.
They see billionaire and Republican front-runner Donald Trump — a former Atlantic City casino owner — and Hillary Clinton, the leading Democrat, as having the best understanding of the casino industry. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who supported bringing Internet gaming to Atlantic City, was third in the survey.
AGA CEO Geoff Freeman said Nevada casino employees "are tired of antiquated rhetoric and the frequent patronizing of our industry."
But tell that to the candidates.
"I know people feel very strongly about (gaming), but it's not the most important issue we face," said Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of California-based technology giant Hewlett-Packard. "Government gets involved in too many things in general and it's counterproductive for government to slow the advent of technology."
Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is co-sponsor of the Senate version of the anti-online gaming bill. But in October, he said he could support language that would allow for Internet poker, calling the activity a game of skill.
But that opinion doesn't match Adelson's. His top government affairs official said the bill doesn't have a provision that would carve out poker.
GOP presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is the primary sponsor of the Adelson legislation, but he is so far down in the polls that he was relegated once again to the secondary non-primetime debate.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field wants to have it both ways.
Last month, GOP candidate Ben Carson said the issue of Internet gaming "should be left up to the states."
He didn't offer an opinion on the Adelson bill, but said "the fewer things that we can have the federal government involved in, the better off we are. Any gaming issue should be a state issue."
It looks like we have a consensus.